Webinar on the “Malaysian State Government Elections: Grounded Perspectives”

In this webinar, Dr Azmil Tayeb, Dr Francis E. Hutchinson, Dr Lee Hwok Aun, and Mr Kevin Zhang shared on-the-ground observations of the campaigning in the six Malaysian states going for their state elections.


Thursday, 10 August 2023 – Drawing on fieldwork carried out in the states of Kedah, Penang, Negri Sembilan, and Selangor, this webinar shared the outlook of researchers from the Malaysian Studies Programme at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute about the state elections held on 12 August 2023.

Clockwise from top left: Dr Francis Hutchinson, Dr Lee Hwok Aun, Ms Julia Lau (moderator), Mr Kevin Zhang and Dr Azmil Tayeb. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Azmil Tayeb, Associate Professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia and ISEAS Visiting Research Fellow, delivered the first presentation, entitled Populism, Pietism, and Pragmatism, a Pre-election Analysis of Kedah. He first looked at recent electoral results for the state, and then broke down the state’s 36 seats by ethnic composition. Azmil analyzed key issues in the campaigns such as the economy and cost of living, the rare earth controversy, reliable water supply and public morality. Of key interest was the new tactic by Perikatan Nasional (PN) to field well-known athletes as candidates. By way of conclusion, Azmil stressed that the Unity Government remained vulnerable due to its dependence on high turnout and untested transferability between PH and BN supporters.

The second speaker, Francis E. Hutchinson, Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Programme, shared his presentation Perspectives on the Poll in Penang. He highlighted Penang’s high level of urbanization and per capita income, as well as its greater diversity and tradition of opposition politics. Then, mapping past electoral patterns from the 2018 and 2022 elections onto the ethnic characteristics of the state’s 40 seats, he argued that the Unity Government was in a good position to retain control of the legislative assembly. Francis compared and contrasted the campaign manifestos of the United Government and PN, before taking a deep dive into the seats of Bayan Lepas, Perai, and Seberang Jaya.

The third speaker, Kevin Zhang, is a Senior Research Officer with the Malaysia Studies Programme, and his presentation was entitled Negri Sembilan – The Most Formidable PH-BN Alliance. He highlighted unique aspects of Negri Sembilan’s context, such as: the state’s ethnic diversity, including the largest proportion of Indian voters in the country; the influence of Minangkabau culture; the long-running dominance of Barisan Nasional, and the gradual expansion of PH in the western part of the state. These factors have made the state difficult terrain for the Islamic party, PAS to make inroads. Analyzing voting trends in the state from the 2022 general election, Kevin argued that, with reasonable levels of voter transferability, the Unity Government was likely to retain the state’s 36 assembly seats with a sizeable majority.

The presentation by the fourth speaker, Senior Fellow and Co-Coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Programme Lee Hwok Aun was Selangor: the Prize Fight. He compared and contrasted the campaigns of the Unity Government and Perikatan Nasional, and took a deep dive into key contests such as those in Hulu Kelang, Gombak Setia, Jeram and Seri Serdang. A key message was that Pakatan Harapan’s performance in the November 2022 parliamentary election stood it in good stead to retain a majority of the state assembly’s 56 seats. This is due to its dominance of ethnically-mixed seats and solid performance in Malay-majority seats. Nonetheless, PH and BN remained vulnerable in Malay super-majority seats.

The webinar proceeded to a Q&A session. Panelists fielded questions about: the transferability of votes between Pakatan Harapan and Barisan Nasional, and what strategies could be used to maximize this; the degree to which the competing groupings used social media effectively and were able to synchronize their online and offline campaigns; as well as the possibilities of hung assemblies in Negri Sembilan and Selangor. Indonesia Studies Programme Co-coordinator Julia Lau moderated this webinar, which was attended by 95 people, which included a strong contingent of local, regional, and international media.